Words & Stuff

kk: Englishizing

(16 March 1998)

As described in an earlier column, a hobson-jobson is what happens when English speakers hear a non-English phrase and analyze it as English. For instance, "mushroom" derives neither from "mush" nor from "room"; it's from French mousseron.

There are other foreign phrases whose pronunciation has altered drastically as they became naturalized citizens of English. Most English speakers, in my experience, believe that the Japanese term for ritual suicide is pronounced /,hA ri 'kA ri/ (or sometimes /,heI ri 'keI ri/), rather than /,hA rA 'ki ri/, and the suicide flyers of World War II were /,kA m@ 'kA zi/ rather than /,ka mi 'ka ze/. Likewise, most English speakers are familiar with the martial art known as /k@ 'rA di/ (or /kA 'rA te/ in Japanese), and most think that miniature Japanese trees are /'bAn zaI/ rather than /'bon sai/. The French pronunciation of "maitre d'hotel" is too subtle for most English speakers, who tend to prefer /,meIt R 'di/. And so on. You could consider such mispronunciations to be errors, but they're so widespread (and so unlikely to change) that it might be more productive to consider them the English pronunciations of the terms in question (much as "mushroom" could once have been considered the English pronunciation of mousseron). In fact, my dictionary lists something close to the "mis"pronunciation for all of these terms.

So why not take this process a step further and intentionally Englishize certain foreign words and phrases? And why not adapt the spellings as well as the pronunciations? Perhaps it could return a certain joy dee veev to the language, a certain jenny say kwa. When confronted with a choice between two equal possibilities, for instance, I often shrug and say "mox nix," rather than trying to remember whether the German phrase for "(it) matters not" is "macht nichts" or "machts nicht." It sounds kind of debonair and stylish, ness-pah? Kind of Alamo'd, nick far? We could even re-spell some existing Englishized words, allowing us to talk about "Commie cozzies" committing "hairy Carey."

While we're at it, we could introduce some less common foreign phrases. I've long been partial to "mutatis mutandis" (Latin for "with the necessary changes being made"); perhaps this could best be rendered in English as "mutate mutants." People say "time flies" all the time, but rarely does anyone exclaim "tempis fuggit!" (particularly appropriate when all of one's time has flown and one is now late). To find out how a friend is doing, you could ask "V gates?" The gang slang language Nadsat from Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange is a rich source of such terms (mostly adapted from Russian), from "horrorshow" (for "good") to "droog" ("friend").

For our peace day resistance, we could add some words that aren't direct steals from other languages. There are some wonderful old words that deserve a comeback: "zounds," for instance, is a great all-purpose exclamation, and "swive" is a much more usable-in-polite-company verb for sexual congress than most of the available alternatives. (And people enjoy using the term. In a Chaucer class in college, one of my classmates once said, with gusto, "So there they are up in the tree, swiving away...") Perhaps a few neologisms would round out our stew: hypertext guru Ted Nelson's term "intertwingled" (as in "Everything is deeply intertwingled"), for instance, is another fine word that hasn't come nearly as far into common usage as one might hope.


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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>